MOSCOW -- After all the anti-government marches and meetings over the past two months, it would have been impossible for Russia’s state TV channels to try to hush up this past weekend’s protests in the capital. But while the main news channels were sure to cover the marches, there was inevitably extra air time for the counter-protest march in favor of Vladimir Putin.

Starting at about 1 p.m., NTV offered live coverage from the pro-Putin march on Poklonnaya Hill, where Victory Park is situated. The park commemorates the Red Army’s World War II effort. Political scientist Sergey Kurginyan, who addressed the gathering, told NTV how there was “stability with Putin, a strong Russia.” He called Putin the “people’s president.” The NTV reporter signed off by saying: “we have heard how change has begun.” The presenter in the studio could barely suppress a smile.

There was no room for such irony on Russia’s other state channels, which treated the pro-Putin as very serious business. It was the top story on Channel 1. Vesti gave it major coverage as well.

NTV hit its stride by 7 p.m. Using a split screen to show both marches, the presenter of the program Today said police had counted 34,000 people at the anti-Putin demonstration, and 138,000 at the pro-Putin rally. The television stations didn’t question the discrepancy in numbers other than to say that more Putin supporters would have come out “if it hadn’t been for the cold.” Only Channel One reported how "the march's organizers said the turnout was several times more.” 

Both Channel 1 and Russia 1 ran a two-minute statement from Putin, who was in the city of Chelyabinsk. The prime minister thanked his supporters and said he did not expect the numbers who turned out to support him. "[Moscow mayor] Sergei Sobyanin called me and said that, according to him, there were 190,000 people," Putin said.

"Russia without Putin" for all to hear

The channels proceeded to show speeches from pro-Putin supporters, whose common refrain was that if Putin goes, “we stand to lose a lot.” Channel 1 then spoke with Sergey Kurginyan, the same political scientist who’d plugged for Putin earlier in the day on NTV. “No orange plague!” he said, referring to the Orange Revolution that toppled the Ukrainian government in 2004. “We will not succumb to traitors and idiots!” he said. There was talk about the orange threat on Russia 1 too. “Brothers, orange is the color of a dog’s urine in the snow,” said nationalist writer Alexander Prokhonov.

Nevertheless, the state channels didn’t ignore the anti-Putin protests completely. Certainly the essence of what was happening came through. For the first time ever, Russia 1 aired a mass chanting of "Russia without Putin!" The station didn’t, however, show the anti-Putin signs marchers were carrying.

Also, Russia 1 and NTV showed parts of the speech of journalist and media freedom campaigner Leonid Parfenov, whose sentiments had never before been broadcast. "We have a public television that is actively engaged in the administration of the president of the Russian Federation,” said Parfenov. “They have subordinated television to the will of the authorities, but now they are freeing it.” The NTV reporter, furthermore, not only referred to the official name of the march, "For Fair Elections", but voluntarily added – "and a Russia without Putin!"

As in December, the three channels depicted the anti-Putin marches in good faith by listing their demands, which include freedom for political prisoners, continuing political reform, and Vladimir Putin's departure. But perhaps the most striking example of how the tone of state television has changed was the speech of the opposition leader Sergei Udaltsov, who was jailed in December.

Channel 1 showed a snippet of his speech: “They say it is a revolution in mink coats, that everyone is rich, well that’s a lie! I’ve had this coat for three years. Where is the mink coat? Like the one you and your cronies have in the Kremlin, with your billions and villas abroad.” Even just a few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine any such quote being broadcast on any Russian state news channel.

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